The truth about e-cigarettes: Are they really safe?

Even non-smokers are using e-cigarettes. Photo by MonicaGrigsby via creative commons

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2014 — It started as a funny looking joke to smokers, but the electronic cigarette industry has grown to a $2 billion a year business.

As smoking bans have continued to spread to include most indoor and even some outdoor locations, electronic cigarettes have provided an acceptable alternative.

E-cigs, also known as Vape Pens, deliver nicotine to the user through a vaporized delivery system created by heating a liquid form of the drug.

Although there has not been much research on e-cigarettes yet, they do appear to have fewer health risks than traditional cigarettes because they have far fewer carcinogens than tobacco products, but experts warn that “safer” does not always mean “safe.”

E-cigarettes still contain the highly addictive drug nicotine, and the delivery method via e-cigs is the same as it is with tobacco cigarettes. A freebase form of the drug is created through the heat and is sent straight to the lungs where it is absorbed into the blood stream quickly.

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Public health officials are still trying to figure out whether e-cigarettes are a less harmful cigarette that helps smokers give up a deadly habit or a gateway for adolescents to move into the harmful addiction of tobacco cigarettes.

It turns out that they might be both.

A recent study in the journal, Addiction, from cancer researchers at the University College London found smokers were more likely to quit smoking when using electronic cigarettes as a quitting aid than those using other quitting aids.

Despite the encouraging news from the London study, results do not look so rosy for adolescents using e-cigarettes.

In 2013, the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded from a long term study that e-cigs had no cessation benefit to adolescent smokers and that the use of these devices in teenagers was actually associated with an increase and heavier use of tobacco smoking.

One possible explanation for the contradiction of the studies is the dosage controls of electronic cigarettes.

Nicotine based cartridges sold for use in electronic cigarettes come in varying strengths ranging from 0 milligrams per milliliter of fluid to 36 mg/ml.

Adults tend to have a stronger desire to quit smoking and therefore slowly reduces the mg/ml of nicotine being used, whereas adolescents and teens who use electronic cigarettes say that they like them because the nicotine high is more intense than traditional cigarettes.

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One of the largest concerns is the number of non smoking teens who are using e-cigarettes.

A survey from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2013, 1 in 5 middle school students and 7 percent of High School students who have tried e-cigarettes had never smoked a regular cigarette before.

E-cigarettes are available in a variety of flavors that appeal to teens.

Flavoring tobacco cigarettes was banned in 2009 because it was seen as a ploy to market to young people.

Currently only cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and roll your own tobacco are regulated by the FDA, leaving electronic cigarettes and hookah tobacco available for anyone who desires it.

Companies that make these products currently give out free samples and flavor their products with so much sugar that they have been described as smoking Pez candy.

Hookah bars have been popular around college campuses for years, and now vape bars are also opening, with students seeing the environment as not only social but also as relaxing, pleasurable, fun and sexy.

College students find hookah tobacco use as socially acceptable even when they do not find cigarette smoking to be.

With the strong sales of electronic cigarettes and hookah tables, it comes as no surprise that e-hookah pens are now being manufactured.

These e-hookah pens or sticks are quickly becoming the new “in” thing complete with plastic canisters in a variety of colors to be accessorized with clothing and sugary sweet flavor.

As with electronic cigarettes, people believe they are safe because they are tobacco free, but they are not nicotine free.

Even if nicotine addicted teenagers are of no concern to some parents, there is another issue with e-cigs and e-hookahs and teens that is becoming significant: marijuana use.

Teenagers are vaping marijuana discretely, often times in their parent’s home and on school grounds.

Using marijuana in an e-cigarette will produce virtually no odor and no smoke. It is also difficult to tell the difference between nicotine and marijuana e-cigarette cartridges.

Marijuana cartridges, also called “dank tanks” can be purchased online and in dispensaries.

The FDA is moving to put regulations similar to those on tobacco cigarettes, but the process is a slow one.

First there must be a 75 day public comment period, which is currently occurring and ends in early July. After the comment period, manufacturers will have to submit the ingredients of the products to the FDA. The manufacturers will then have 24 months to request their product remain on the market without the regulations.

There has been so little research into the electronic vaporizers that there are still many unknowns.

All of the chemicals that are released when the tobacco oil is heated remain unclear as is the actual concentration of nicotine ingested when it is inhaled in vapor form.

Users and parents should be informed. Even though these devices look like harmless gadgets, things are not always as they seem.

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  • DJ

    Total fear mongering. UK studies on teen ECig use shows that teens and non smokers DO NOT go from ECigs to smoking. Why is it that teen smoking has declined the past 3 years? As to weed, well many States are pushing for recreational use of weed so this is total hypocrisy. BTW Nicotine also found in Tomatoes and Cauliflower and looked as for treatment of obesity, Parkinson and Alzheimer’s. Also used in all smoking cessation in gum, patches and inhalers.

  • I have not smoked a tobacco cigarette in over 2 years but I am an avid vapor(er). My quality of life has improved. I can now ride a bike, walk up stairs and generally participate in rigorous activity without loosing my breath and feeling like I am going to die. Why? Spontaneous lung repair? No because I quit putting tar in my lungs. I would not have quit without e-cigs.

    Kids? Medications are not abandon because kids abuse them. Kids are stupid; if it can be abused they will. It is amazing any of use made it through adolescence.

  • Paulnewy

    “All of the chemicals that are released when the tobacco oil is heated remain unclear as is the actual concentration of nicotine ingested when it is inhaled in vapor form.”

    Tobacco oil? Quite a few of my friends and I use e-cigs, and I don’t know of anyone who puts tobacco oil in their e-cig. The ingredients are well known by now (or should be) and all of them are used in many other products on a daily basis. (with the exception of nicotine which may or may not be in the vapor) My cough is gone, my clothes no longer reek, my girlfriends allergies are not affected, and my brothers asthma is not affected either. I feel so much better and healthier since i switched from analogs last year after smoking for 24 years. I can’t see how anyone can be opposed to these unless they are completely ignorant or influenced by Big Pharma.

  • Rilt

    Regarding the following statement:

    ” …the delivery method via e-cigs is the same as it is with tobacco cigarettes. A freebase form of the drug is created through the heat and is sent straight to the lungs where it is absorbed into the blood stream quickly.”

    Every article I have read on this subject states that ammonia was added to tobacco cigarettes to promote freebase nicotine, which provides a more potent nicotine delivery than without it. Meaning ammonia or some other kind of base would have to be present, otherwise the nicotine is in acid form (bound), and the delivery into the body is slower and less potent.

    Every e-liquid I have observed does not contain ammonia, nor is it being reported as an ingredient in studies that exist on e-liquid content analysis, leading us to conclude that the nicotine in e-liquids is most likely acid form (bound), and NOT freebase, and therefore not as potent when delivered.

    To the author: please provide a link or citation to back up the referenced statement, which will show that either ammonia or a similar base ingredient has been found in all e-liquids which can facilitate nicotine delivery in freebase form. If you cannot, you should remove or correct this statement.

    To future readers – if the statement referenced has not received a link or citation, or if it is not removed or corrected as erroneous, you should ignore this entire article as propaganda.

  • Alan

    Another tech mag wanting their high school tormentors to die from smoking and all those big pharma adds. Like the nicotine inhaler.